19th Century Warfare in the 21st Century

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19th Century War in the 21st Century by James Dunnigan Over a hundred years ago, Afghan tribesmen got their hands on rifles. These new weapons, many of which are still in use, changed warfare in Central Asia.

There were three reasons for this. First, these rifles could quickly load bullets from a magazine (holding five to ten rounds). Second, smokeless gunpowder (which was not a powder, but it was smokeless) eliminated all that smoke that gave away the Afghans' firing position. The new propellant was cleaner and capable of moving the bullets along at higher speeds and longer ranges. Third, advances in metalworking allowed more precise parts to be made and assembled faster and cheaper. The rifles were cheap. Afghan tribesmen could now fire faster (up to 20 shots a minute), farther (a thousand meters or more), more accurately (no smoke) and with more lethality (faster bullets do more damage).

Even though the war with the Russians in the 1980s brought in many automatic weapons like the AK-47, the rifle is still a weapon of choice. The Northern Alliance has asked for 7.62mm and .50 caliber sniper rifles and instructors on sniping tactics.

What Afghans already had was self-sufficiency (from farming and herding) and centuries of smuggling (a steady source of extra income, for things like weapons). Thus for the last century the Afghans (as well as the related Pushtun tribes in northern Pakistan) have been more dangerous than ever.

Whereas in past centuries, the Afghans had to get close with their shorter-range weapons, the new rifles enabled them to snipe at the unwary over long distances. The Russians found this annoying when they invaded in 1979. But the Russians used their traditional terror tactics (offering each tribe "gold or lead") that left over a million Afghans dead and many others tainted because they took the Russian gold (payments of cash and goods to stay quiet). The mass murder and getting bought off is nothing new. Afghans have done it for thousands of years.

Unlike the Russians, Americans cannot offer "gold or lead." Afghans have long been persuaded by the prospect of mass murder. But they know the Americans cannot use that weapon. The Taliban see themselves as unbeatable. The Taliban openly disparage American ground troops, knowing that if U. S. soldiers come in on the ground they will have a hard time, and that American casualties will weaken American resolve back home.

While many Afghans are fed up after two decades of war, there still are enough true believers around to make the Taliban a formidable force. There has always been a core group of Taliban hard-liners. Several thousands of armed Taliban are being joined by thousands more Pushtun tribesmen from both sides of the Pakistan border. These men are angry at the American bombing raids on Afghanistan. Then there are some 10,000 Pakistani "volunteers" (mostly Pushtun religious students) and more than 5,000 members of various bin Laden organizations. That's at least 20,000 armed men likely to fight stubbornly, often to the death.

Most of these, however, are tied up with Northern Alliance forces near the Tajik/Uzbek border at Mazar-I-Sharif and just outside Kabul. Attacks on Taliban warplanes, artillery and tanks have had some success. But they don't need this stuff to resist. Their most deadly weapons are the ones they carry with them. AK-47s, RPGs and rifles carried by determined men who know how to operate in the mountains. But the Taliban know they have another weapon - public opinion. The more Afghan civilians killed by U. S. military action, the more Afghan men take up arms for the Taliban, and the more support the Taliban gain throughout the Islamic world. This support outside Afghanistan is useful. These supporters provide money, which goes to smugglers and gangsters in countries neighboring Afghanistan, and ultimately this results in guns, ammunition and whatever else can be sneaked across the border to the Taliban.

We like to think that American military and diplomatic power is all-powerful. It isn't, and the Taliban know it. The Taliban's most dangerous foes are fellow Afghans, particularly the Northern Alliance. The only American troops the Taliban fear are those who fight like Afghans. These could be American rangers and Special Forces. These guys have to go in there and convince the Taliban fighters before they become a real factor in the Afghan war.

American bombers can hurt the Taliban, but they can't kill it. A bunch of Taliban fighters with shovels can defeat any number of American bombers. It's always been that way and there's no new U. S. weapon that even claims to conquer the shovel. Afghans know about living underground. And they know how to dig. If Kabul falls, it means little to the Taliban, for their center of battle is Kandahar, far to the south. This city is deep in Pushtun territory and is the unofficial capital of "Pushtunstan." It is the Pushtuns, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that protect bin Laden. If Kabul falls, more Pushtuns will see the war as one between the Pushtun and non-Pushtun tribes of Afghanistan. The Tajiks, Uzbeks and other non-Pushtuns aren't eager to fight their way into Pushtunstan to catch bin Laden and his associates.

Going into Pushtunstan is 19th century warfare. Every village and valley contains men with rifles, machine-guns and RPGs. There are no more easy targets for the bombers. The Taliban fight at night and become civilians by day. The only way out is to convince enough Pushtuns that it's in their interest to renounce the Taliban. While there is some enthusiasm for that in Pushtunstan, in Pakistan, the army is trying to prevent thousands of armed Pushtuns from joining their kinsmen in Afghanistan.

The only good news is winter, for the Afghans prefer not to fight in the winter. For one thing, they are not equipped for it, especially with hostile warplanes ready to bomb truck convoys carrying essential supplies to any troops they do have out in the field. But with enough money available, smugglers are willing to bring in whatever is needed for winter warfare.

In the hills of Afghanistan, 19th century warfare may seem old fashioned, but it still works.


-- Rich Marsh (marshr@airmail.net), November 12, 2001


There is an old saying in boxing "let 'em come to you boys they'll eventually wear themselves out".

-- David Williams (DAVIDWILL@prodigy.net), November 12, 2001.

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